What Would Lincoln Do?
By Patrick W. Gavin
One of the men we honor on President’s Day is Abraham
Lincoln, our 16th president and a man whose leadership, like
our current president’s, was most acutely defined by his wartime
leadership. While the Civil War and the current war on terrorism are
starkly different conflicts, they do, at the most basic level, share a
common storyline: a prosperous, free, and diverse people are threatened by
a bitter society angry at the United States and its policies. In both
situations, the gravity of the situation (for Lincoln, it was the fracture
of his country; for Bush it was the fracture of national security) was
daunting, and the solution was similarly uncertain.
As we honor Lincoln on President’s Day, can we draw
comparisons between the conflict in Lincoln’s time and our own, and can we
perhaps ascertain how Lincoln might have operated in a post-9/11 world?
Both Lincoln and Bush came into the Oval Office with
little experience compared to their predecessors: Lincoln had served as a
Congressman for only one term and Bush’s political life was limited to six
years as governor of Texas. Yet during the first years of their
presidency, both leaders were quickly thrust into moments of great
The conflicts were clearly different in nature:
Lincoln was waging an internal war against his Southern countrymen; Bush
was waging a complex global campaign against a vague enemy. Both men
instantly recognized the awesome challenge that lay ahead. “The occasion
is piled high with difficulty,” Lincoln said in 1862. America was
“awakened to danger,” Bush asserted, and what was at stake was nothing
less than civilization itself.
This challenge would require great sacrifice. Lincoln
implored citizens “to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before
us,” and Bush reminded Americans of their “essential obligations to one
another, our country, and to history” and called “upon every American to
commit at least two years — or 4,000 hours — of his or her life to
service.” Lincoln saw the Civil War as an opportunity to create a “new
birth of freedom” and Bush instantly recognized that it was that very
freedom which now needed to be defended.
Both presidents concluded that the only way to
properly honor those who had died was to continue ahead with the war in
hopes of cleansing the earth of its darkest roots. They justified all of
their actions — both military actions and issues concerning the
restriction of civil liberties — by pointing out the imminent danger that
always lay around the corner.
In the course of their conflict, both presidents came
under great criticism for their actions. Lincoln faced opposition from the
Conservative Peace Democrats and abolitionists, and Bush’s motives have
consistently displeased those who fear that his policies are too
aggressive, too undefined, and too shortsighted (while also being too
How, then, would Lincoln act were he in Bush’s shoes?
Lincoln might strongly recommend to Secretary of
Defense Rumsfeld — who is confident in the United State’s ability to wage
several wars at once — to wage only one war at a time (Afghanistan and
then Iraq and then North Korea, but not simultaneously).
Because of the Civil War’s domestic nature, it is
oftentimes forgotten that there was an enormously significant
international component to it as well. The Confederacy was aggressively
pursuing support from both Britain and France. Britain had an economic
interest in the South’s cotton. France’s Napoleon III was eager to
establish Mexican colonies, and a disintegrated United States would only
further his ambition. Lincoln, and his Secretary of State William Seward,
warned potential Confederate allies that any allegiance to the rebels
would ultimately result in conflict with the United States upon the
completion of the Civil War. In that sense, Lincoln completely espoused
the idea that “You’re either with us, or you’re against us.”
But Lincoln also understood the essential role that
allies play in any conflict. European recognition of the Confederacy would
have certainly crippled the Union’s war efforts, and it was for this
reason that Lincoln dedicated so much of his time to carefully navigating
the muddy international waters. He would understand Bush’s need to act
unilaterally if necessary, but he would urge him to do whatever he could
to secure allies for himself, and at the same time to prevent Saddam’s
acquisition of sympathizers.
Lincoln would likely take issue with the Bush
doctrine of pre-emptive strikes. In 1848, as a Whig member of the House of
Representatives, Lincoln spoke out against President Polk’s decision to
enter territory claimed by Mexico, justified by Polk’s claim that he
needed to “repel invasion.” Lincoln wrote: “Allow the President to invade
a neighboring nation whenever he shall deem it necessary to repel an
invasion, and you allow him to do so whenever he may choose to say he
deems it necessary for such a purpose, and you allow him to make war at
his pleasure. [This logic] places our President where kings have always
Certainly, Lincoln would find nothing wrong with the
PATRIOT Act and the Bush Administration’s comfort with civil rights
restrictions during a time of war. In his own time, Lincoln found it both
appropriate and necessary to suspend habeas corpus, limit freedom of the
press, and impose martial law. Between 10,000 and15,000 individuals were
incarcerated without a prompt trial during the Civil War. Lincoln would,
therefore, find little wrong with our detainment camp in Guantanamo Bay.
Lincoln would support the ongoing blockade of Iraq.
Almost immediately following the siege at Ft. Sumter, he issued orders for
a naval blockade of the South, in order to prevent communication,
transportation, and the movement of supplies. A similar stranglehold on
Iraq might achieve the same objective.
Lincoln would urge Bush always to clarify the war’s
purpose, and to remind the public of it frequently. Lincoln came under
great scrutiny when, upon implementing the nation’s first draft, he
allowed individuals to buy their way out of service. It wasn’t long before
chants of “Rich Man’s War!” echoed down Pennsylvania Avenue. However,
Lincoln’s military and diplomatic efforts were greatly improved when he
passed the Emancipation Proclamation, which made it clear to most people
(especially European leaders, who now could not, in good conscience,
support the Confederacy) that this war was, in fact, about slavery, and
not simply about financial or constitutional preferences. In a world
skeptical of Bush’s motivations (war for oil? family revenge? elections?
economy cover-up? imperialism? empire?), it is essential to his cause that
Bush repeat what he believes to be the scope of this conflict: freedom.
Throughout the Civil War, Lincoln faced the difficult
task of waging a quick, bloody, and aggressive war against enemies who
would become countrymen again when the guns ultimately fell silent. More
than anything, he would remind Bush of the increasingly global community
in which we live, a community in which barriers and borders are constantly
shrinking. When the war is over, he would remind President Bush, the world
and all of its religions and countries and peoples, who were recently your
enemies, will once again need to sit together at the international
roundtable and press on as a group to address the globe’s essential
“George,” Lincoln would say, “wage war with malice
towards none and charity for all, so that when you sit down at that table
and look at the faces around you, they will want to look back at you.”
“And always, always George, trust that the better
angels of our nature will prevail.”
Patrick Gavin (firstname.lastname@example.org)
teaches history at Princeton Day School.